On a rainy April morning, Mari Jane Engebrit and I stand next to the mural on the side of the Artworks building in Excelsior. Engebrit, now in her 70s, helped coordinate the painting, and she loves to tell stories. One minute she’ll be talking about someone she knows in the Lake Minnetonka community, and the next she’ll be sharing a tale about her travels around the world.
“I remember people bringing doughnuts or cookies,” Engebrit says. “The people of the community would get to know us because we were out here painting every day.”
Looking at the mural, Engebrit points to the signatures at the bottom. Some of the kids who painted signed their names or left handprints. Although some of the names have faded, many are still visible. Engebrit laughs. It’s been a few years since she came to look at the painting, and it’s in better shape that she remembers.
Sitting in the shadow of the new library, the mural is sprawling, taking up the entire side of the building. The facts of the mural are pretty straightforward: It was designed by Ann Bonnine, a professional artist from Deephaven, and was painted with the help of community members in 1995. Teams of kids who served as volunteer painters would spend all day working on the mural. The design was fixed on a grid, so anyone could stop by and paint without worrying about messing with the design, by using a “paint by numbers” system.
Engebrit met Bonnine, who is in her 90s and in a nursing home now, years before the mural was painted. They became friends, and Bonnine painted several portraits of Engebrit family members over the years.
The idea for painting a mural came from Debbie Hart, the former owner of Artworks, an art and frame shop in Excelsior. Hart, who passed away in 2013, opened Artworks in 1978 with her family. She and her husband, Terry, later took over. Terry still owns the shop to this day, and says his wife was the driving force behind commissioning the mural. She reached out to Bonnine to create a design, and offered an open call to the community to complete the painting. The building next door had been recently torn down, and Debbie felt like they should do something to fill the space.
“For me, it has a lot of memories with the effort that was put in, and all the people in the community coming by,” Terry Hart says. “It has significance for the community and especially for me since losing my wife.” That significance led Terry and an Artworks employee to touch it up a few years ago, when it was fading in spots. With that little work, it’s looking brand-new again.
While the Harts are at the center of the mural’s origin, the real story of the painting comes from the community. Terry says he still sees people stop by to look at the painting, whether reminiscing or experiencing it for the first time. What’s clear in talking to people about the mural is that it doesn’t just belong to Artworks; it belongs to the entire Excelsior community. Laura Hotvet, the executive director of the Excelsior Chamber of Commerce, sees it as a central part of Lake Street.
“It is one of those beloved landmarks that small towns have,” Hotvet says. “It’s a reminder that we’re a community that cares about beauty and art, and is a living legacy of the art community. It’s fun to see.”